Masks muffle speech, prohibit lip reading for central Ohio's hard of hearing

Holly Zachariah
hzachariah@dispatch.com
Amy Bull, who is hard of hearing, wears a button on her mask to help with communication during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

The students enter Amy Bull's office and sit the appropriate distance away behind a newly installed plexiglass barrier.

Then they start firing questions at her about their careers and college classes.

But more often than not these days, Bull simply doesn't know what they are saying.

"I will say again and again, 'I cannot hear you,' and their initial reaction is to rip off their mask every time and keep talking," she said. "And that's not doing anybody any good."

So Bull, 51, the career-services coordinator for Hondros College of Nursing in Westerville -- which as of July 28 was open for summer term -- went looking for a creative solution that would minimize risk in this COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic and yet improve communication for and with those who have a hearing impairment.

She found the answer on the Etsy marketplace website in the form of a variety of $4 buttons that she can pin to her mask or her shirt to let people know there's an issue. The buttons read:

"Please be patient. I'm hard of hearing."

"Your mask means I can't read your lips. Please speak up."

"Hard of hearing. Please keep mask on and speak up."

It's a challenge, she said.

"In situations out in public even without masks, when I am trying to hear what someone is saying, you would be floored at the rude treatment from people when you ask them to repeat what they said," said Bull, who has worn hearing aids for about 12 years. "So I learned early on that with masks, this was going to be very stressful for me."

Approximately 15% of adults (37.5 million) in the U.S. report some trouble hearing, and about 30 million people 12 years or older have hearing loss in both ears, according to information from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

In this pandemic, much has been written about the problems masks present for deaf people who rely on lip reading. But also to consider is the segment of the population who, to this point, had some hearing loss but were just getting by.

Getting by, that is, until everyone had to stay 6 feet away -- and until everyone put on a mask and was told to turn away from people to direct potentially contaminated air particles in another direction.

"For some of us who don't have a hearing impairment, it can be hard for us to understand what that is like right now," said Kayla Kirk, an audiologist with the Columbus Speech & Hearing Center. "But the mask affects the speech, and the social distancing affects the signal."

She said that means more people only now are recognizing the extent of their hearing loss.

"This situation is just bringing to light an already underlying issue: 'I was doing OK before, but hearing now is nearly impossible,' " she said. "Communication is more challenging."

Laddan Shoar doesn't need anyone to tell her that. She, like Bull, is living it every day now. Grocery stores, as one of the essential places she still goes, pose a particular problem.

"I have leaned my head all the way down to the hole in the plexiglass where you pass your card under to try and hear what the cashier is saying," said Shoar, a 41-year-old bookkeeping and office-management consultant from Clintonville. "The masks make it so much more difficult that there's not much I can do, so I just ask people to repeat themselves. I'm OK just telling them, 'I need help here.' "

She said she plans to order some buttons, too. (The Speech & Hearing Center also has some it's giving away.)

Kirk said being an advocate for yourself matters. But right now, those who don't have a hearing impairment should recognize that anyone they speak to might be having trouble.

"This is a teaching moment for how we communicate in general because the reality is we never know what someone else is going through," she said.

Kirk said to always face the person you are talking to and make sure you have their attention, speak slowly and enunciate your words. She said not to shout because that distorts the signal even more. And try to reduce outside noise -- turn down the radio, shut off the TV and move away from others who also are conversing.

And if you really want to be an ally, the Speech & Hearing Center has a tutorial online to show you how to make a mask that has a clear insert so that your lips are visible.

Bull, who lives in east Columbus, has -- even with her hearing aids -- always relied on a person's tone of voice, pitch and position and on being able to see the speaker's mouth to help her. She said she hopes the challenges posed by this pandemic will help people be more attentive to other's needs in general.

"This is a much bigger issue than wearing or not wearing a mask," she said. "This is about being more aware of how we communicate effectively with everyone."

hzachariah@dispatch.com

@hollyzachariah